No matter what yardstick of appraisal you would care to utilise, there is no doubt that Jack Bolger from Barrow Street in Graignamanagh fills a room, comfortably, writes Barrie Henriques.
His physical presence, like in the days when he pulled a number three jersey over his broad shoulders for club or county effuses a kind of challenge that one would be well advised to consider for a while before making a mistake that could prove costly.
Built like a well-constructed load of square bales, Jack, well into his seventh decade on God’s earth, can still boast of a sturdiness of good foundation, a ruddy complexion and sporting a hairless cranium.
“Ah Bar, the curls are well gone,” he said when he smiled a mischievious smile.
“The girls always loved the curls. It didn’t matter whether they liked the song, but they were mad about the curly lad doing the singin’.”
He roared with laughter. The interview was off to a flying start.
Born, weaned, bred and fed in Graignamanagh, Jack Bolger - its not John, or J, or any other derivation; simply Jack - said nothing ever usurped his allegiance to the town of his birth, beautiful Graignamanagh on the banks of the river Barrow.
“I’ve been to many towns around the country, but I’ll tell you this, without fear of contradiction, that there is no finer sight than coming down the hill on the Thomastown Road and seeing our town on the floor of the valley.
“And do ya know when it looks terrific? When around the Autumn when the turn on the leaves cloaks the place in a terrific mantle of different colours.
A free spirit
“Sure you wouldn’t see the likes in heaven. And then you come on into the town and come on to the Quay. Where would you get the likes?”
Even if I wanted to utter a question, I dare not, but I would have to agree with the sentiments expressed.
Anyone that would count Jack Bolger as a friend or an acquaintance would vouch for the fact that he is a kind of free spirit, which would be difficult to disjoint or disrupt.
One feels that he has never been otherwise, and if afforded the opportunism that hindsight allows, one could see Jack Bolger being very much a central figure in his own manor as he cavorted along the river, messed around the boats, or swam in the same river in his younger days.
“The river was central to the commercial and social life of the town when I was growing up,” he informed.
“Of course as young lads it was very much the central element of what we focussed on.
“We all loved swimming and diving. I was a fairly tidy swimmer myself, as was my brother, Jim. Jim was better than me though.
“He was a terrific diver and swimmer.
“The swimming regattas were tremendous.
“They brought swimmers from all over the South East, and it brought a lot of visitors to the town for the day.
“It was great fun, but it was twice as good when you won a race,” he laughed, as if there was an untold story, or stories, hidden somewhere.
He had no interest in fishing, even though the Barrow was considered one of the great fishing rivers. That surprised!
“I had no interest really in fishing,” Jack insisted.
“In fact, I didn’t really eat too much fish, although in my young days, people lived off fish.
“There were great salmon and trout caught here, and the coarse fish were enormously plentiful.
“Up to fifteen years ago, you could throw out a cut of bread into the river and it would boil with the fish action.
“People used throw out the bread just to impress visitors, and they marvelled at the shoals of fish that would suddenly come to take the bread. It would be like the films you’d see with them Piranha fish.
“There was talk at the time that there should be a ban placed on feeding the fish, because they were putting on enormous weight. Jays, there were coarse fish, particularly pike, caught around here as big as crocodiles.
“They are all gone now, and I don’t know what happened.
“You would hardly see a fish being caught there now.
“It is remarkable that it has been decimated so badly.
“I wonder would the pollution coming off the land have anything to do with that,” he mused.
Plenty of work on barges
There were big numbers of barges on the river plying their trade in his youth.
“Nearly everybody in the town, and for miles around, had someone working on the barges.
“They would go up to Guinness in Dublin for a load of porter, or some other cargo, and bring it down here,” Jack enlightened.
“There were barges bringing stuff up from Limerick, or up from Waterford every day. It wasn’t all one-way traffic either. There would be plenty of cargo going out from here too, like corn and feedstuffs.
“Every boat had a crew of three, who would eat, sleep and drink on board for the duration of the round trip.
“There were plenty of people earning a wage off the boats too.
“There were lock-keepers along all of the canals, and then there were people employed in repairing the locks.
“It was a terrific system, and there was plenty of good money earned, my own father was one who benefitted,” he said.
How would one go to Dublin from here (Graignamanagh)? Surely they would not be sea-worthy to go up the coast on the Irish Sea?
“Are ya mad,” he all but gasped. “Now I wouldn’t be that familiar with the waterway systems in the country, but I do know that the barges would go up to Athy, then on to the Grand Canal and on to Dublin.
“The same scenario would be applied to the movement of cargo to Waterford and Limerick.
“You look at that river there (it passes by the window of his home) and you could go all the way to Northern Ireland by boat now using the river, the canals and the Shannon.
“It is terrific. But even if you fancied a nice trip on a river now, you could get on any of them boats out there and trip along down the most pleasant experience you could wish for after your lunch, and be back in time for the supper.”
Having spoken about the great swimming regattas, I suggested that up to the present day, the Graignamanagh boating regatta was still a magnetic occasion to the locality on the August Bank Holiday.
All sorts of races
“Absolutely,” Jack assured. “There are all sorts of races for all sorts of boats.
“There is a great sense of achievement around the place during the regatta.
“It is a regatta for all water sports, including swimming and diving.
“It really is Mardi Gras time here, and thousands come from the four corners to enjoy the festivities.
“There is a fun fair, a cvarnival, novelty stalls and a whole raft of stalls selling all sorts of yokes.
“The town is on fire for the entire weekend. Have you never been down here Barrie? You certainly are missing something,” he beamed.
Having finished his schooling at an early age, despite the best efforts of Master Brennan and Master Moore to dissuade him,
Jack Bolger, who probably regretted later in life the decision to leave at such an early age, went to work with his uncle as an apprentice builder.
Times were tough and work was scarce around the mid-fifties.
Emigration was the national answer to a mounting dole queue.
There was a goodly number of young Graig men taking to the boat for foreign climes. Jack Bolger was among the swelling hordes.
I too was that soldier around the same time.
“I went to London and got work,” Jack informed.
“It wasn’t too simple over there, although there was plenty of work.
“I got hurling with a team called Cassin Rovers from Harlesdon.
“There were 12 or 13 Graig men on the team. I remember hurling against a lad by the name of Billy Duffy (Bros Pierce) from Galway, one of the greatest minor hurlers that ever graced Croke Park.”
Although he had a tremendous reputation as a hurler, he also had the reputation of being a very dangerous, cold-blooded operator on the pitch?
Got lonely...for the mother
“He was a great hurler, but very dirty,” he answered. “You would have to be very wary of him because he would do you a serious damage, if he had a mind to.”
And as an addendum to the observation he added, with a mischievous twinkle: “and then I was very clean as you well know.”
Is the Pope a Catholic.
“I came home after eighteen months,” Jack continued.
“Ah, I got lonely,” and with a laugh, “for my mother.”
Never thought Jack Bolger had a soft streak.
Back home, Jack Bolger really threw himself into the building game, and hurling.
Jack Bolger hurled with Kilkenny against Limerick in a kind of Feile All-Ireland final in Limerick. On the team were Pa Dillon, Ollie Walsh and Sean Buckley, among others.
He won a Leinster minor medal with Ollie Walsh in 1955, having also played in 1954. He always wore the number three jersey.
With fellow club men, Paddy Grace (capt), Pat Kavanagh, Jack O’Connor, Tucker Foley and Liam Ryan they were all members of the Kilkenny intermediate team that defeated London in the 1973 All-Ireland final.
In addition, Jim Meaney was a selector with the team.
Jack played in six county finals, winning one junior and one intermediate title. He also got a trip to America with a Kilkenny team around the same time.
Hurling was good to Jack Bolger.
He still speaks with great admiration and fondness of the likes of Liam Ryan, his brother, Jim, Jack and Jim Dunne, a great goalkeeper by the name of Paddy Grace, and Michael Walsh of the early Graig teams.
Later he would speak with equal admiration of lads like Peter Pender, Jack Connors (O’Connor), Tucker Foley, Shem Grady and Pat Cahill.
His allegiance to Kilkenny hurling is absolute and unconditional.
“A better hurling team than the team of the last 12 years has not been seen anywhere,” he insisted.
“Arguments will be made, and there are many that will concur with the opinion that the teams of the 60s and 70s were equally good.
“But I would still say that they were not better.
“Questions are asked in pubs about whether the likes of Cummins, or Eddie, ‘Chunky’, Skehan, Fennelly (any of them), Henderson, Purcell, Delaney or Fitz would get on any of the Cody teams. Boys it would be a brave man who would suggest that they wouldn’t.
“Frank Cummins was my favourite all time great Kilkenny hurler, including the present set-up. But I can tell you this. They can talk about Heffo and Morgan and Barry (Cork), Mickie Harte or Mick O’Dwyer, but you can mark this one down - Brian Cody is unquestionably the best manager that ever pulled a track suit over his shoulders.”
On his return from London he went into the building business with his brother Jim.
They formed a partnership establishing their own building company. Houses, a bank, schools were all tendered for and won by the Graig brothers. They were busy men.
Jack married Breeda Keogh from Dunnamaggan and they had five children.
Their eldest daughter Orla is a teacher; Shearon is a Ban Garda; son Damien is a carpenter; Conor is a self-employed sales executive with his own company while the youngest is Owen, who works for the pharmaceutical company, TCP.
He loved - still does - singing.
With that great Graig raconteur, Billy Hoare, his brother Sean (sadly passed away as I wrote the last few lines of this story on Sunday evening), Piery Fenlon (RIP), Jimmy and Paddy Doherty, Christy Kealy, Paddy Flood and John Ryan they formed a dance band, and life couldn’t be better for the athletic, curly haired guitar-playing singer from Graig.
Played in top dance halls
The Barrowboys were born.
Later that gifted tenor and super hurler, Peter Pendergast joined as a 15-year-old lead singer.
Were you a good singer Jack, and where did you get your singing talent?
“Jays I wasn’t a good singer, but the people thought that I was, and sure that’s what mattered,” he roared with laughter.
“They paid good money to come in, and we tried our best to give them value for money.”
With a less than auspicious beginning in small parochial halls, the Barrowboys grew in attraction, status, esteem and pulling power. They played from Ballyheigue in Kerry to Clifden in Galway, from Dungarvan to Sligo, in Dreamland, Barrowland and Danceland, and all points in between.
They were very popular in Lahinch and Kilrush. They got themselves flashy gear, and they were on the showband circuit.
They played relief for a big number of the best showbands around, including the Royal, the Clipper Carlton, Dixielanders, Jack Mulcahy, the Capitol, Sean Dunphy and the Mainliners, and many more.
On their own they packed the Mayfair in Kilkenny, Seapoint in Salthill, the Castle in Enniscorthy, the Mullinavat hall, and numerous halls in Wexford where they were absolutely loved.
In the pages of this newspaper we wrote the Barrowboys story as told through the eyes and memory of Billy Hoare.
We managed to get many of the stories.
We heard more from Jack, but it would be more than my friendship with Jack Bolger is worth, and I put solid value on that, to re-tell stories that were imparted with utter discretion and confidence.
One story Jack loved telling was the one where there was a coincidental similarity between the Barrowboys and the Beatles, in that both of them played as relief bands to the Royal Showband.
“There aren’t too many bands that could make that claim,” Jack laughed.
“We were responsible for more marriages than any marriage guidance councillor.
“The likes of Mullinavat, and the Mayfair that time, were packed to bursting.
“I’d say once you got into the place that you couldn’t stir.
“I often saw nights where people couldn’t get room to take off their coats.”
A flashy VW minibus
In those times the marquees dancing circuit was flying too.
“We played many a good night under canvas too, and before you jump to the wrong conclusion it was marquee canvas,” he smiled as the memories came flooding back.
The Barrowboys had a flashy Volkswagon minibus as the conveyor of musician and equipment.
Often they would leave Graig at midday for Kerry and not return until the dawn had well visited their home place the following morn.
“Larry Dunne was our driver,” Jack recalled.
“He is a lovely man, and I was only talking about days long ago the other day with him. He is 84 now.”
Jack left the band when he was 33 years of age, and took up hurling seriously.
“He won whatever he got from there on.
“A lad said to me one time that I could have been a great hurler if I had started early, and took it seriously,” he smiled.
“He was only bulls******g me. But I loved training. I left it far too late.”
He informed me that he practically fell out with everyone he met on the pitch, but he never left the pitch without shaking his opponent’s hand. He made great friends, and most of them have lasted the test of time.
He remembered playing against the likes of Pat Delaney, Kieran Purcell, Eddie Keher, the Quigleys from Wexford, Tony Doran and more.
He played against the old ‘Chunky’ O’Brien (Jack was on the Kilkenny minor team at the time), and the young ‘Chunky’.
He rated ‘Red’ Willie Walsh from Carlow as one of the great players of his time, and there are few that would provide contradiction.
If Jack Bolger had one regret over a colourful lifespan, it would probably be that he left school too early.
“I wonder would they take me back as a mature student,” he laughed in the same comedic tone that has stayed with him all his life.
While some lads might have won more medals than you would find at a Legion of Mary Convention, Jack Bolger, whilst he has a few, has had two lifetimes of great memories, which thankfully he is still around to share with anyone who offers an ear.